A common design theme in tattoo arts throughout the ages has been the lantern tattoo. The lantern is full of meaning and history which is a major contributor to its popularity, but the ornate nature of the lantern lends itself to very interesting and beautiful tattoo designs. Take a minute and learn a little about the history and symbolism of the lantern tattoo.
Lantern Tattoo Symbolism
The symbolism behind the lantern tattoo is mostly obvious. The symbolism revolves around its purpose. It is a vessel for light and is used to light one’s way in darkness. You use it to find your path and in a way, a lantern is a guide. In modern times the lantern has lost some of its potency as a symbol and has more of a nostalgic air to it, but it remains a fantastic and beautiful piece for tattoo art.
The lantern symbolizes many things, including:
- A light within (something that motivates us, a fire inside, a strong desire)
- Something that guides us (often elaborated on with text when used in tattoo art)
- Something that helps us guide others
- A means of finding our way in the world (usually associated with a quote, mantra, or idea)
- Enlightenment, knowledge, or understanding
Types of Lantern Tattoos
The lantern tattoo typically comes in a couple different forms. First, and most common, are lanterns resembling those people used to carry before the advent of the flashlight. These were either plain or ornate depending on the wealth of the user. Another popular type of lantern tattoo is the oil lantern. For more ideas on styles of lanterns to use in your tattoo, check out the lantern wiki page.
The style of this tattoo often calls to mind images of miners, as this design resembles lanterns used to light mines before electricity was widely available. The last, but seemingly equally popular lantern tattoo design, is the Chinese (often referred to as Japanese) lantern. This is a red paper lantern, often depicted with a glowing gold interior. In Chinese culture red symbolizes happiness and good fortune while gold represents wealth. This version extends the meaning of the lantern tattoo slightly, but does not diminish the other interpretations of its symbolism.
In addition to different lantern styles, your lantern may be drawn in a particular tattoo style. Traditional tattoo or Neo-traditional tattoo styles are often used for people who want a very nostalgic feel to their tattoo. Completely traditional style lantern tattoos will likely be very simple, but maintain a very classic nautical or “Americana” feel. Neo-traditional designs retain some of the nostalgia but are more like fine art pieces in their attention to fine details and sometimes delicate line work. Colors also tend to be bolder with more gradient used as opposed to flat, blocked colors which can be typical of classic traditional tattoo work.
Japanese Lantern / Chinese Lantern Tattoos
Obviously, Chinese or Japanese lanterns are most commonly done in a traditional Chinese/ Japanese style because firstly, that makes the most sense and secondly, that is how they tend to look best. With that said, some folks like to mix and match themes, styles, and symbols. So to see a Chinese lantern done in a traditional or Neo-traditional tattoo style wouldn’t be unheard of. You do you. If you’re into more Traditional Japanese tattoo art check out our Traditional Japanese Page.
Neo-Traditional Lantern Tattoos
Speaking of mixing styles, here’s a few great Neo-Traditional tattoos. This tattoo was done by Katie Davis at Salvation Tattoo Gallery. It’s a great example of how you can take a classic design element and make it wholly your own. For tips on coming up with a gorgeous and unique custom tattoo piece, check out our guide to getting a custom tattoo.
Josh Richey from Heroes and Ghosts has a great piece that also exhibits a great modern take on the this theme that includes another common tattoo design theme, moths. It’s very common to see moths in association with lanterns in tattoo designs (you know the saying, “Like a moth to a flame”). A tattoo design like this might symbolize attraction or possession of a quality that attracts others.